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Spotlight on women in STEMM – Dr Elissa Burton

As a child, Dr Elissa Burton was sports mad and school was of secondary importance. Fittingly, she went on to work at a sporting organisation and focused developing the next generation of tennis players. She later completed a PhD and moved into researching healthy ageing, with focus on physical activity, falls prevention and assisting people with dementia and their carers.


Dr Elissa Burton with some of her research study participants.
Dr Elissa Burton with some of her research study participants.

What sparked your passion for science, and when did you decide you wanted to build a career in this area?

I have always been interested in sport and physical activity and it was a natural progression to then move into sports science and now health sciences.

Describe your area/areas of research.

My area of research is healthy ageing. My main focus is to develop interventions that can be translated into practice to help older people to stay in their homes for as long as they choose.

My research has predominantly been with physical activity and older home care clients, but more recently has branched out into falls prevention and also helping people with dementia and their carers.

How long have you been at Curtin, and where did you work/what did you do prior to joining the University?

I’ve been at Curtin for nine years. I originally started at the Centre for Research on Ageing with Professor Gill Lewin and in the last four years since completing my PhD I have worked at the School of Physiotherapy & Exercise Science with Professor Keith Hill.

Prior to joining Curtin, I worked at a state sporting association helping to develop the next generation of tennis players and increase the number of kids playing tennis across Western Australia. The role also included writing and acquitting grants, and project management, both of which assist me greatly in my work today.

Dr Elissa Burton.
Dr Elissa Burton.

What have been your biggest challenges in your career, specifically as a woman in STEMM, and how did you overcome them?

Certainly in previous work places I have worked in there were many opportunities for women in the lower and middle level positions. However, once you got to the upper levels of management I found there were definitely more men and fewer opportunities. To overcome this I just worked as hard as I could and tried to prove that I was as capable as the men in the organisation.

At Curtin, I haven’t felt I have had great challenges because I am a woman, they are more to do with being an Early Career Researcher (ECR) and the nature of academia. It could be because I have some very good mentors around me who provide great advice, or perhaps as I get to the more senior positions I will become more aware of the gender challenges.

What are the successes you are most proud of?

As a kid I was only ever interested in playing sport, and school was very much secondary to me. To take time away from education and then come back and eventually get a PhD – I am pretty proud of that. The life my partner and I have built together, though, I am most proud of.

Prior to joining Curtin, Dr Burton worked with young tennis players.
Prior to joining Curtin, Dr Burton worked with young tennis players.

What has assisted you in developing your career – for example, a mentor, supportive work environment, family support?

I have worked with some amazing people over the years who have been great mentors for me. Professor Gill Lewin, and now my current mentor Professor Keith Hill, work quite differently but are both highly successful, so it has been great to have the opportunity to tap into their expertise as well as work closely on research projects with them. My partner and parents have definitely been my greatest support and without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Taking the leap to jump from the sport industry into research and then, two years later, commence a PhD full-time under scholarship was a big decision, but it has paid off. I really love what I do, which I don’t take for granted knowing many others don’t necessarily like what they do for a living.

What makes a successful scientist?

There are so many facets to being a successful scientist. In my position I need grants to survive so the grant writing process, budgeting correctly and building collaborations with Curtin and outside researchers is really important.

Being methodical through ethics, data collection and analysis is essential and then having the persistence to write the journal articles and start the process again really matters.

Also, not taking the rejections too personally helps! For me, though, one of the most important facets is knowing my ‘why’. I know why I am doing what I do, and it keeps me focused on who I want to help.

Dr Burton's mentor, Professor Keith Hill, pictured with physiotherapists in Singapore.
Dr Burton's mentor, Professor Keith Hill, pictured with physiotherapists in Singapore.

What would you say to young girls and women who are interested in developing careers in STEMM?

I would say go for it! If they apply themselves, they will more than likely reach their goals. They need to have an understanding that there is a lot of work involved, which is the case for being successful with anything in life, but that hard work can bring great rewards and knowing you are helping others is one of the best rewards you could hope for in your work.

What are the barriers to women participating successfully in STEMM areas – systemic, personal, and professional – and what can we do to improve this?

I think there are a number of barriers that probably apply to everyone who is an outlier. In STEMM women do tend to be a minority, although perhaps not as much in the health sciences. Having said that, there are very few women who are at the professorial level who I have had the opportunity to work with.

I don’t have children, so I can only imagine the struggles women have with trying to achieve their goals in the workplace as well as at home. Academia is not an eight hour a day job, it simply isn’t, and for women trying to juggle everything, that must be incredibly difficult.

I haven’t encountered the gender bias many people talk about, but I also think as a female I need to perhaps push myself forward in some situations, where in the past I haven’t because I felt uncomfortable. Whereas, you see some of the guys pushing forward and they do achieve things earlier than the female staff because they are willing to do that.

Women will often wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder and say ‘move forward you’re as good as everyone else’, whereas we probably need to be willing to move forward despite no one saying so. Perhaps some of the high level managers could be looking out for this and help women promote themselves more.

Dr Burton's research includes helping people with dementia and their carers.
Dr Burton's research includes helping people with dementia and their carers.

On reflection, is there anything you would change about your career?

I really love what I do. The only thing I would like is a little more stability rather than moving from one short term contract to the next. I am incredibly lucky that I work with fantastic people and have a mentor who encourages ECRs and provides a huge amount of advice and expertise.

Funnily enough, I usually pick up most of the expertise and advice through his actions and how he goes about juggling his workload while building relationships and his research portfolio. I have always found Professors to be very willing to share their experiences about why they are successful, and I try and tap into that and build practices and habits that will work towards achieving success.

Please list any major awards/grants that reflect your professional success?

I have been a Chief Investigator on ten grants over the last eight years, for over $700,000. I received a PhD scholarship with Healthway and Curtin provided a top-up scholarship as well. I was the valedictorian for my undergraduate Bachelor of Science (Sports Science with First Class Honours) in 2001.

Fit for purpose  and Research encourages seniors to pump more iron are news story about Dr Burton’s research projects.